Archive for March 2010

What it was, was Oscar

March 8, 2010

Congratulations! We survived another Oscarcast. Observations follow.

At least it wasn’t Ray Milland and Rosey Grier: The two-headed host — Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin — turned out to be a dreadful idea. Not because either was terrible, but because they simply didn’t work smoothly and effectively together. I don’t know whether Martin and Baldwin were poorly rehearsed, or just suffering from awkward chemistry. One host or the other would have been adequate, if not especially scintillating — Martin hosted the awards solo in 2000 and 2002, in not-particularly-memorable fashion — but the combination fell flat.

The sound of one man yawning: None of the major awards turned out to be a huge surprise, unless you really thought the Academy was going to pass up a chance to stick it to notoriously unpopular James “King of the World” Cameron by honoring his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and her magnum opus. The favorites in each of the big categories triumphed.

Double the displeasure: Expanding the Best Picture category to ten nominees was, as expected, a pointless drag on the production. No one really thought that there were more than five real contenders; namely, the films represented in the Best Director category — the victorious The Hurt Locker, Avatar, and dark horses Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. Padding the show with twice as many introductory film clips merely took up air space.

Up with people: In a refreshing change, all four of the acting winners gave engaging, entertaining speeches. (I can’t prove it with verified test results, but I suspect that Jeff Bridges’s Dude-esque ramble may have been… what shall we say… chemically enhanced.) Equally refreshing, all four were people that most viewers would be glad to see win.

Sore loser: Quentin Tarantino, who looked as though Kathryn Bigelow had vomited in his lap when she won Best Director and he didn’t. I dig your films, QT, but your sportsmanship sucks.

Spare me the song and dance: We didn’t have to sit through performances of each of the Best Song hopefuls this year. A welcome omission, because seriously, when was the last time all five of the nominated songs were actually good? On the other hand, someone thought it made sense to stage an elaborate interpretive dance number incorporating music from the Original Score nominees. (Funny, I didn’t realize there was breakdancing in Sherlock Holmes.) Redeeming the moment, winning composer Michael Giacchino (Up) gave one of the night’s best acceptance speeches, encouraging young people to pursue their creative impulses and not allow naysayers to convince them that they’re wasting their time.

Didn’t work: The trend, continued from last year’s Oscarcast, of having each of the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees regaled with a speech by another celebrity. With the rare exception of an unexpected star turn by someone like Oprah Winfrey (who feted Gabourey Sidibe, nominated for Precious), these fawning tributes only serve to make both audience and nominees uncomfortable.

Worked, in kind of an off-kilter way: The tribute to recently deceased writer-director John Hughes, which culminated in the appearance onstage of numerous actors and actresses who became stars via Hughes’s legendary run of hit films in the 1980s. Cool to see these folks together in one place, but man… are we all getting old, or what?

Speaking of getting old: I understand why they do it, but I grow annoyed with the increasing insertion into the Oscarcast of no-talent young stars with no genuine cinematic credibility (i.e., the ubiquitous Miley Cyrus), just to draw in the teen audience. Uncle Oscar says: Get off my lawn, you meddling kids.

The death of me: I’m always curious to see who gets tagged with what I call the “Dead People Gig,” introducing the memorial segment honoring movie folks who’ve shuffled off this mortal coil since the last Oscar ceremony. This year, it was Demi Moore pulling double-death duty (she was also one of the participants in the John Hughes tribute). James Taylor performed an acoustic rendition of “In My Life” while the clips rolled. For once, there was no moment of shock generated by the appearance of someone I didn’t know had died. Interestingly, Michael Jackson — whose filmography consists basically of The Wiz — made the cut, while Farrah Fawcett — mostly known for TV work, but she did make several films, including such “classics” as Logan’s Run and Saturn 3 — missed.

Fashion forward: Oscars 2010 proved rather low-key on the sartorial front. Understated glamour was the norm this year, so there were fewer what in the name of Vera Wang was THAT? moments on the red carpet than at previous Oscarcasts. The most egregious offenders were Sarah Jessica Parker, whose strapless gown came equipped with an enormous silver breastplate that resembled a leftover centerpiece from an office Christmas party, and Charlize Theron, wearing what looked like two pink-frosted cinnamon rolls stuck to her bosom. Best-dressed of the evening included several of the usual suspects — Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Queen Latifah. Jennifer Lopez’s lovely pink dress would have gained high honors, if not for its ridiculous train. Likewise, Best Actress winner Sandra Bullock lost points for her garish lipstick.

The voice of choice: As she did last year, voice actress Gina Tuttle contributed a pleasant and unobtrusive announcing job. And if Gina ever gets tired of that gig, Oscar producers… I’m in the book.

Comic Art Friday: To Ell’en back

March 5, 2010

The blonde on the bomb is Ellen Dolan. She’s the daughter of the police commissioner of Central City. One day, she’ll be the mayor of that dark and dangerous metropolis. And she’s sweet on a masked vigilante known only as The Spirit.

The Spirit's Bombshells: Ellen Dolan, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

And therein lies a tale.

Ask any group of knowledgeable comics historians, “Who was the single most influential artist in mainstream comics?” and you’ll get one unanimous answer: Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the original X-Men, and sole auteur of the Fourth World cycle, among hundreds of others.

Ask the same historians, “Who was Number Two?” and the answer will be nearly as unanimous: Will Eisner.

Whereas Kirby’s creative genius ranged broadly over six decades in comics, Eisner is best known for a single creation: the long-running Sunday newspaper feature The Spirit. That’s not to say that Eisner didn’t create numerous other worthwhile projects — he certainly did; Eisner’s 1978 graphic novel A Contract with God rewrote critical thinking about comics as both literature and high art. But there’s no question that, from a pop culture perspective, The Spirit remains his most familiar brainchild.

Briefly, The Spirit revolves around the adventures of a young police detective named Denny Colt, who, after surviving a near-death encounter with some underworld types, permanently buries his former identity (literally; he takes up residence in a subterranean sanctuary hidden beneath his own tombstone) and assumes a new one — that of the masked crimefighter known only as The Spirit.

The business-suit-clad Spirit isn’t a superhero in the traditional sense. His only disguise is a domino mask; he possesses no superhuman ability (except perhaps for a remarkable knack for withstanding physical abuse); and he functions more like a consulting detective a la Sherlock Holmes than like, say, Batman. Sometimes, The Spirit serves merely as a background character in the stories in his own strip — stories which range far beyond swashbuckling derring-do to intimate, twisty, eccentric tales about the odd folks whose actions (sometimes nefarious, sometimes innocent) bring them into contact with The Spirit.

Over the course of The Spirit’s 13-year career, he encountered numerous beautiful, exotic women. In fact, most of the memorable characters in the strip — aside from The Spirit, and his police contact, irascible Commissioner Eustace P. Dolan — were female. Some appeared only for one story, and vanished as quickly as they had arrived. Four, however, recurred often enough to make a permanent mark on the series, and on The Spirit himself.

Soon after I conceived my Bombshells! theme — pinups in the style of World War II-era bomber nose art, featuring comic book heroines who debuted in the 1940s and ’50s — I hit on the idea of a special subset of Bombshells! dedicated to these four legendary women. I knew immediately the perfect artist for the project: Darryl Banks. Darryl’s most prominent contributions to comics history are his co-creation (with writer Ron Marz) of the Kyle Rayner version of Green Lantern, and his recasting (also with Marz) of the Hal Jordan version of Green Lantern as the cosmic supervillain Parallax, during an eight-year run as illustrator of the Green Lantern series.

My favorite of Darryl’s artistic efforts, though, was Millennium Comics’ 1990 miniseries Doc Savage: The Monarch of Armageddon, considered by many Doc Savage enthusiasts (including yours truly) as the most faithful comic book adaptation of the Man of Bronze. Even more specifically, I thought about a commissioned artwork Darryl drew for me a few years ago, depicting Doc and his intrepid cousin Patricia. Darryl’s take on Pat Savage had exactly the feel I wanted for my Spirit Bombshells! portraits. I was thrilled when Darryl agreed to tackle the project.

Doc Savage and Patricia Savage, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

Ellen Dolan stars in the first of Darryl’s Spirit Bombshells! pinups. Ellen is the most consistent female presence in The Spirit’s life, and the closest to a genuine love interest in the strip. She’s a compelling character who evolves over the years, from her beginnings as an impetuous college student (and something of a stock damsel-in-distress) to a sharp-witted, capable, modern woman. As noted in our introduction, toward the end of the original series Ellen becomes mayor of Central City — not only her father’s daughter, but also his boss. And every inch The Spirit’s equal. Comics historians frequently cite Ellen as one of the earliest feminist characters in the medium.

Next Friday, we’ll look at the second of Eisner’s fetching females, and we’ll talk more about what makes The Spirit such a pivotal creation in the history of comics. Be here in seven.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Dominance and Submission

March 2, 2010

We don’t do memes very often here at SSTOL, but every once in a blue moon, someone on my blogroll will post one that looks kind of fun.

The man known only as the Mysterious Cloaked Figure served up this intriguing challenge a while back: Answer a series of 20 questions about yourself, using titles of songs recorded by one of your favorite musical artists. I immediately came up with a couple of possibilities, but ultimately went with the one whose catalog offered the most entertaining possibilities.

So, without further ado, here’s my life as told by Blue Öyster Cult. (For the record, I’m using titles only from the period during which I was actively buying BÖC records, which ended with their 1983 album The Revölution By Night.)

1. Are you male or female?
Subhuman

2. Describe yourself:
Veteran of the Psychic Wars

3. How do you feel about yourself?
I’m on the Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep

4. Describe where you currently live:
Shadow of California

5. The first thing you think of when you wake up:
This Ain’t the Summer of Love

6. If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll

7. What is your favorite form of transportation?
Wings Wetted Down

8. Your best friend is:
Godzilla

9. What is your favorite color?
Heavy Metal: the Black and Silver

10. What’s the weather like?
Feel the Thunder

11. If your life were a TV show, what would it be called?
I Love the Night

12. What is life to you?
Goin’ Through the Motions

13. What is the best advice you have to give?
Don’t Fear the Reaper

14. If you could change your name, what would it be?
Baby Ice Dog

15. What is your favorite food?
Unknown Tongue

16. How would you like to die?
O.D.’d on Life Itself

17. Your soul’s present condition:
Redeemed

18. The faults you can bear:
7 Screaming Diz-Busters

19. How would you describe your love life?
Before the Kiss, a Redcap

20. What are you going to post this as?
Dominance and Submission

Postscript: People who know me as a middle-aged adult are often surprised to discover that I was a huge Blue Öyster Cult fan in my younger days. To them I say…

You’re Not the One (I Was Looking For)

Vancouver memories and Canada dreams

March 1, 2010

I miss the Winter Olympics already.

Miscellaneous thoughts and observations from the 21st Winter Games in Vancouver…

The start of the Games was overshadowed by the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luger from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, in a crash during a pre-Games training run on the day of the opening ceremonies. All of the sliding events (luge, bobsleigh, and skeleton) were subsequently altered, with the men starting from the (lower) women’s launch point and the women starting at the junior-level gate. Even with these adjustments, we saw a higher-than-usual number of wipeouts in these events, even among the most skilled competitors.

The Canadian women’s curling team had a member who was five months pregnant. Seriously, if you can do it at a world-class level when you’re heavily gravid, it’s really not much of a sport.

Speaking of curling, a shout-out to local Sonoma County company Loudmouth Golf, suppliers of wackily patterned pants for the Norwegian men’s curling squad. Seriously, if you can do it at a world-class level wearing ludicrous trousers, it’s really not much of a sport.

Canadian Joannie Rochette skated the short program of her life, less than three days after her mother’s sudden death from a heart attack. Joannie’s free skate was equally dazzling, netting her a bronze medal and the adulation of millions.

Bode Miller skiied home with a complete set of medals — a gold in super-combined, a silver in super-giant slalom, and bronze in the downhill. In so doing, he actually managed to seem slightly less full of himself than he did four years ago in Torino, where he was a total bust.

Memo to NBC’s Bob Costas: Put. The Just for Men. Down. Although, to Bob’s credit, his dye jobs looked better in Vancouver than they did two years ago at the Summer Games in Beijing.

Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White and Jeret “Speedy” Peterson busted out impossible-seeming aerial moves in the snowboard halfpipe and freestyle skiing, respectively, proving that if you want to be really good at anything, you need a snappy nickname.

Women’s halfpipe starred its own pair of tomatoes — silver medalist Hannah Teter and bronze medalist Kelly Clark.

Thanks to Bill Demong, Johnny Spillane, and their Nordic Combined teammates, Team USA won three medals in a class of events where no American had so much as sniffed the podium in, like, forever.

Has there ever been a more amazing female figure skater than South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na? If so, I must have missed seeing her. In technique, in artistry, and in power, Yu-Na was so many light-years ahead of the rest of the competitors that I almost felt embarrassed for the field.

Lost amid the highly deserved excitement over Apolo Ohno’s becoming the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian ever was the fact that his close friend Shani Davis won Team USA’s only speed-skating gold, in the men’s 1000 meters. Shani added a silver in the 1500. The most heart-warming story in speed skating came via J.R. Celski, who earned a bronze in 1500 meter short-track (thanks to a spectacular wipeout involving two Korean competitors) in his first competition after a horrific injury last fall.

We love Steve Holcomb and the Night Train, the gold-winning team in men’s four-man bobsleigh (and yes, that’s how they spell it at the Olympics). Steve’s celebratory “Holkie Dance”? Not so much.

Smackdown of the Games: Evan Lysacek’s win over the Ivan Drago of figure skating, Evgeni Plushenko.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was so incensed by his country’s lack of gold medals in Vancouver that he called for the ouster of Russia’s sports ministry. Tough sledding (pun intended) since that Soviet machine went away, eh, Vlad?

Proving that she does, in fact, know her shin from Shinola, Lindsay Vonn overcame a much-publicized injury to bag gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-G. Her teammate Julia Mancuso took home a pair of silver medals, in the downhill and super-combined.

Seth Wescott repeated as the only man ever to win gold in Olympic snowboard cross, a sport that I am convinced recruits its participants from insane asylums.

Halfpipe bronze medalist Scott Lago was sent home by the U.S. Olympic Committee, after photos appeared on the Internet showing Scott and a female companion engaging in risque business with his medal.

Memo to NBC’s makeup department: The technician who worked on the broadcast crew at the figure skating events needs to be fired.

Hannah Kearney and pink-tressed Shannon Bahrke displayed knees of steel as they pounded to gold and bronze, respectively, in women’s moguls. Bryon Wilson notched a bronze in the men’s version. How anyone could stand up after that event is beyond me.

Silver was the color of the season for Team USA hockey, with both the men’s and women’s teams coming in second to the homestanding Canadian squads. The USA men drove the Maple Leafers to overtime in the gold-medal game, with a last-minute goal by Zach Parise of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Buffalo Sabres goalkeeper Ryan Miller battled valiantly between the pipes, earning recognition as the hockey tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Perhaps the most shocking moment of the Games — aside from the Kumaritashvili and Rochette tragedies — occurred in the men’s 10,000-meter speed skating event. Dutch skater Sven Kramer lost the gold medal following his disqualification after the Netherlands’ coach, Gerard Kemkers, directed Kramer into the incorrect lane for the race’s final lap. An understandably angry Kramer appeared inconsolable after the race. If the Dutch have an equivalent to the witness protection program, Kemkers is probably in it right now.

I don’t believe ice dancing is really a sport — it’s more of a competitive exhibition — but silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White did us proud nonetheless, as did fourth-place finishers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.

Neither of our teenage figure skaters, Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt, came home with a medal (they finished fourth and seventh), but both gave their finest performances to date. Watch out for Mirai in 2014 — she’ll be on the podium for sure.

Will we ever forget the image of the malfunctioning hydraulics on the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies? Good on the Canadians for poking fun at themselves by revisiting the misfire at the end of the Games.

And oh yeah… how did we ever watch the Olympics before HDTV?